December 17, 2019
Somebody pls. KILL ME NOW!
When a coworker shoots you a line like this on Slack, the likeliest reason is that somebody just set up another meeting.
Expressed in Twitter memes, face-palm emojis and whispered hallway diatribes, exasperation with conference-room conclaves appears to be nearly universal.
But at the risk of sticking up for something that is about as popular as clowns or Congress, isn’t the eye-rolling a bit overblown? Collaborating on work is a good, not an ill. The problem is the dreary time-wasting that results from a mindless culture around meetings.
If you fail to consciously create a meetings culture at your firm, then an unconscious one will pop up in its place—with all the gracefulness of a Rorschach test for the seventh floor.
That culture cannot be divorced from the zeitgeist of the broader organization. A brand agency filled with creatives will have a different vibe—and therefore different meetings—than a hedge fund run by devotees of Sun Tzu. At the agency, channeling the flow of creative ideas could be the biggest challenge in meetings. At the hedge fund, it could mostly be about transmuting open conflict into productive tension.
‘What are We Doing Here Again?’
What does a broken meetings culture look like? The biggest clue is a general sense that nobody has ever sat down and thought about when, why and how to hold meetings, much less considered the cost of bad meetings to people and projects. Worse, poorly run meetings run the risk of eliciting groans from clients (and possibly losing them for good).
Companies need to figure out how meetings should work, put those principles on paper and act to bring them to life collectively. The idea is not to stuff another “policy” printout into the HR packet for new hires. You want an ongoing dialog about the role of meetings in the organization. With apologies to the jaded, it may be a good idea to set up some meetings…about your meetings.
Ward Off ‘Calendar Abuse’
Imagine a tech startup in Redwood City, California. Wary of excessive meetings, the founders spell out the need to respect others’ time: We love to see you playing foosball in the rec room or sitting under a tree on our campus. We know that ‘downtime’ yields big ideas.
That much license may not work for a Wall Street law firm. But when the company is explicit about the value of everyone’s time, this discourages both “calendar abuse” (the tendency to predatively capture open slots on others’ networked calendars) and “calendar shame” (the neurotic need to show how busy you are by packing your schedule with back-to-back appointments).
The legitimate need for meetings ebbs and flows. But even during “crunch time,” meetings will go better if everyone follows a few best practices.
Have a Strong Conductor
If during a meeting you imagine yourself as a samurai committing seppuku, odds are that a key component is missing: a strong conductor. This role should be explicit enough that the invitation includes a line like “Maxine to conduct.”
The conductor sends out the agenda in advance so that invitees can mull it over and allow ideas to percolate. She keeps the meeting on track and puts the toughest issues first. She has specific goals in mind and knows how specific role-players can work together to achieve them. She encourages everyone to invite only those who need to be there, understanding that “visibility into what we’re doing” can be provided to secondary players later on.
Conductors try to find the best times and locations for meetings. They are wary of, say, setting up an exhaustive financial review at 4 p.m. on the Friday before a three-day weekend. They respect lunch. They love to ask, “Can we do this in 15 minutes instead of an hour?”
Stake Out Ground Rules
Ground rules bolster efficiency. Let’s say the CEO is 20 minutes late for a conference call. In an anything-goes meetings culture, everyone sits in awkward silence, having exhausted all possible insights about the weather. The CEO eventually signs on, but before long key participants start to bail because they have other commitments. These early departures kill the roundup—that point when the conductor says, “OK, here’s what we have decided, and here are our next steps.” In a conscious meetings culture, there’s a sacrosanct cutoff: After 10 minutes of delay, everybody drops off and moves on.
Ground rules help with another problem—divided attention. Nothing says “this is a waste of time” quite like a low-energy meeting, and nothing kills the energy quite like people staring at their phones or typing away on their laptops. Set a ground rule against scrolling through Instagram and Reddit during your meetings. Will you get 100 percent compliance? Not unless you line the conference room with lead, but the aspiration should be for all to be fully present.
In a best-case scenario, your company masters the art of meetings. People learn how to listen, move things along or find their voice and speak up. Client interactions get better, too, as your teams take these newfound skills out into the world.
Forget about Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It’s possible to walk out of a meeting and say to yourself “Hey, that went really well.”